The story behind the story…Unbroken: Louis Zamperini–95 years of an amazing life!

Memorial Day Monday I worked around the garden  carrying around my trusty little transistor radio, dialed in to one or two local shows highlighting Memorial Day events from around the Southland.  I was hooked on some interesting veteran interviews and even listened to the replay of a few favorites. Are you familiar with Louis Zamperini? He is somewhat of a local “celebrity” and I’ve heard him interviewed before, but I am mesmerized each and every time.

Zamperini, now 95 years old, was once dubbed the “Torrance (California) Tornado” because of the athleticism that eventually took him to the 1936 Summer Olympics as part of the U.S. track team. But this remarkable man, and I don’t use the adjective glibly, has a life worth studying. Once you begin to learn about him, you want more!

His career in the Olympics was not particularly noteworthy. He finished eighth in the 5000 meter distance event, but two years later did set a national collegiate mile record which held for fifteen years. But in 1941 Zamperini enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Forces and was deployed to Hawaii as a bombardier. It’s at this point that his story takes huge twists and turns, but If I were to relate all the incredible details of the story that follows I would need to write a book.

Fortunately, someone else has already done that!   Laura Hillenbrand,  author of Seabiscuit, successfully published Zamperini’s mesmerizing story in the book, Unbroken.

I am not a very skilled book reviewer. I’m generally a bit uncomfortable with knowing how much to tell! I don’t like to know very much before I start a book, but some of the story is well-known, so I feel free to tell  you that on a routine reconnaissance run  in the South Pacific,  Louis and another crew member crashed into the Pacific Ocean, survived a life raft for 47 days, only to be rescued by the Japanese.  He then spent two years in a Japanese Prison Camp sadistically tortured by one particular guard intent on breaking his spirit with verbal and physical cruelty. Prior to the war Zamperini had a bit of a “bad boy” reputation, and perhaps his rebellious personality  combined with his athleticism helped him not only survive, but return home with exemplary resilience to go forward.

Rather than take the chance that I reveal too much, I will leave it up to you!  If you would like to see some excellent file photos and absorb some added detail, I recommend this  Wall Street Journal article. And if you have another few minutes, you might enjoy this video.

I have heard Zamperini’s story many times, but each time I continue to be captivated by his indomitable spirit!

But I was also intrigued by Hillenbrand’s story!

Laura Hillenbrand contracted chronic fatigue syndrome while still in college. The symptoms associated with her illness have kept her mostly homebound and to write this carefully researched book she located fellow POWs and was able to interview some of his Japanese captors–all from her home office!  She interviewed and collected research from experts on the War in the Pacific  and pulled from Zamperini’s personal files, which he shipped to her for her use. Over the course of the seven years she wrote this book, Hillenbrand never had one face-to-face encounter with Zamperini.

Struggling with her illness, Hillenbrand openly credits Zamperini’s story as a boost to her own inner strength. She says, “Louie’s story is a lesson in the resilience of the soul and the wonderful breadth of possibility that life affords, even in our bleakest hours.”

Click on the link below to go directly to the Random House site and view a Today Show clip featuring Hillenbrand. I think you’d be impressed with her story, too. She certainly chips away at any excuses we may have for not accomplishing any yet unmet goals!

Laura Hillenbrand and Louis Zamperini on The Today Show « Random House Publishing Group – Random House.

I think you catch that I’m enthused about this book and about these two remarkable people. Zamparini is an inspiring and delightful man. You may want to share his story (the book) with others who have a particular interest in WW II history, or simply someone who enjoys a story of courage and resilience. Let me know what you think!


30 thoughts on “The story behind the story…Unbroken: Louis Zamperini–95 years of an amazing life!

    • I never read Seabiscuit, Sharyn. It was one of those books I always intended to read, and just didn’t. Then eventually saw the movie. After learning a bit more about the author and enjoying Unbroken, I may read it yet. Unbroken was a nail-biter! Debra

  1. You have me curioius now about Zamperini, as he sounds like a remarkable human being. It’s touching too to have a woman who developed a debilating condition write the book and in the writing it, his resilence became her source of strength. Beautiful!

    • Isn’t Hillenbrand’s story inspirational! Zamperini was the obvious focus, but when I learned more about the author I really realized that her story is worth telling. Maybe she’ll one day write a memoir. It might help others who feel their bodies just don’t cooperate! I’m glad I could introduce you, Marie. Debra

  2. Great post Debra. What an incredible man and his life had so many highs and lows. Amazing! Such resilience. And what a humble man. The cruelty of the Japanese in those POW camps was beyond belief. And it sickens me how so few were brought to justice. xx

    • I am glad I could introduce both the book and Zamperini to you. He is a most remarkable man! I agree with you regarding the lack of accountability for the actions taken in the prison camps. It isn’t often discussed in history lessons, either. My father used to talk about it and I later learned more from some independent reading. I’m sure that I really don’t have a good understanding as to why so few were brought to justice. Debra

  3. What inspirational people these two are! Because I can relate to her better, Hillenbrand in particular has me smacking myself for not having more determination in achieving my goals. Good wake-up call!

  4. As soon as the rush dies down at the library, I plan on reading “Unbroken”, Debra. Your post is beautifully crafted and you need not worry about doing book reviews. You’ve “nailed” it.

    I’ve been fascinated with Hillenbrand’s own story since I read Seabiscuit and suspect that some day a movie will be made about her. I believe there have been times when she has been bedridden and yet found ways to continue her research. She is amazing.

    I’ll come back to listen to the interviews and appreciate that you’ve provided the links and I’ll look forward to reading this book. Zamperini’s story is compelling.

    • I never got around to reading Seabiscuit, Penny, and think that once I saw the movie I just didn’t go forward with it. So I only recently learned about Hillenbrand’s illness and I was just fascinated! I cannot imagine doing all that research fighting illness, and as you say, sometimes bedridden. She must at least write her memoirs! They would be inspirational to many. I know you would enjoy Unbroken. Here we go again with more books than we can get through, right? I was thinking about your post and the Twilight Zone clip about time. I wonder what would happen if we just declare one day a week as our “all reading day” and we simply don’t do anything else. Do you think we can sell our families and friends on that one? Interesting thought, don’t you think? 🙂 Debra

  5. I’m going to download this one today, Debra. I love stories like this one, and to know how hard the author has fought her own obstacles to tell this story makes it even more special. Thanks so much for putting it on my radar.

    I hope your Dad is continuing to strengthen.

    • Thank you for asking about my dad, Andra. He is doing much better. He is a very determined and disciplined guy, so he’s working hard to regain his strength and stamina. You’re so sweet to ask! And I think that Hillenbrand’s story of her own determination to write such heavily researched books when she is in poor health herself is amazing. You’ll find the book a fast read…it’s a page turner! Debra

  6. brilliant than you so much debra and thank you for not saying too much as i hall find this book and read it. I read all the time and am never without a book on the go so it is always great to have a recommendation, I think I may have read laura H before, her name seems very familiar.. I must go and look in my library wall.. yes i know, i keep all the good books i read too.. I am always looking for more shelves, my goal in every house I live in is an entire wall of books, then another, then another and in London I left my room with wall to wall books ( I only took my favourite but hard to find books – which was a suitcase full) and have been thanked again by successive dwellers of that attic room in central london. Anyway.. i am loitering.. back to work for me! and thank you for my next book! c

    • You may have read Seabiscuit, Celi? I think that was Hillenbrand’s first best seller. That’s a great story about leaving your books behind in London! That would be very hard…but it’s like a perpetual good deed to leave them for others. 🙂 I have always wanted to have so much space that I could keep a huge library, and I do know what it’s like to always be looking for more space! I can hardly imagine you having much reading time, Celi…or what I picture, perhaps, is sitting down in the evening to read and falling asleep! That’s what happens to me…and I haven’t been working outdoors all day! And I’m glad you agree with me that sometimes book reviewers share just a little too much. I didn’t want to do that! Unbroken is a fast read–it’s such a page turner. I know you’d really enjoy it! I’m so glad I could give a good recommendation. oxo Debra

  7. What an incredible life story that man endured! I agree with Charlie. Too few were brought to justice for the atrocities they inflicted upon so many. I am really glad Mr. Zamperini came to terms and found inner peace. I can only hope Ms. Hillenbrand can do the same.

    • I find Mr. Zamperini a truly incredible man, John. His full story is jaw-dropping. I have heard “noise” about a movie in the making, and that would bring his story even more front and center. The atrocities in the Japanese prison camps were particularly sadistic. I don’t really know much about background on the decision not to pursue more justice in this area. When I was in school we mostly concentrated on the war in Europe and I really learned more about the war in the Pacific through independent reading. This book included some excellent historical background. I’m sure Ms. Hillenbrand deserves the credit for that! Debra

    • I did find this book very inspirational, Nancy. I was so glad to read it, and also enjoyed hearing this remarkable man tell his story to a skilled interviewer. It was clear that the gentleman conducting the interview was just loving the conversation. Zamperini’s mind is still very sharp! Debra

  8. Dear Debra, I read the book last year and was awed by the human spirit as embodied in Zamperini—and also in Hillenbrand. I had read her first book on Seabiscuit. Often, an author’s second book falls short of the first, but “Unbroken” was so imbued with an appreciation of one man’s fight to live that it, too, captured my imagination. And I was so relieved toward the end of the book to see that Zamperini had been able to let go of his feelings toward the Japanese. Those feelings had embittered him, but he survived, and yes, triumphed. Peace.

    • I’m really glad to hear your impressions of Unbroken, Dee. It is just an amazing story of the triumph of the spirit, but I agree with you that his forgiveness of the Japanese and in particular his captors was a turning point in his life. I find myself thinking of this man from time to time…that’s a powerful book. I wondered if Hillenbrand’s overcoming her significant health concerns in order to write this book might also be inspirational to you. I know how you struggle with Menieres, and yet you continue to be so active in your own writing! Bless you, Debra

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